U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell plans a Middle East trip soon to launch what he says will be a "much more active" U.S. role in efforts to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The trip is expected to include a stop in Syria despite U.S. charges that country has been developing chemical weapons and sheltering officials of the former Iraqi government.
Officials here are not ready to provide details of the Powell mission, but they indicate it will not come until late this month or early May and must await the formal approval of a new Palestinian cabinet headed by prime minister designate Mahmoud Abbas.
The Bush administration has promised that with the installation of a new Palestinian government, it will release the long-awaited international "roadmap" aimed at achieving a Middle East peace accord for full Palestinian statehood and Arab-wide recognition of Israel by the end of 2005.
In a broadcast interview with the Associated Press released Thursday, Mr. Powell said the launch of the "roadmap" will be accompanied by "much more active American engagement" in pursuit of peace including his own personal involvement and travel.
The secretary said in the same interview that he expects to visit Syria, even though U.S. relations with Damascus appear to have plunged to new lows in recent weeks amid charges that Syria provided material support to Iraq's war effort and may be sheltering senior members of the ousted Iraqi regime.
Mr. Powell said he would continue what he said have been "very vigorous" diplomatic exchanges with Syria, especially on safe haven for Saddam Hussein associates, which he said would not be Syria's best interests.
"We have been candid with the Syrians, and we have also made it clear to the Syrians that we don't think it would be in their interest to be a draw for people who are trying to either get out of Iraq or get out of other places in the world and find a safe haven. Syria does not want to be a safe haven in the aftermath of operation Iraqi freedom," he said.
In a gesture to defuse tensions with Syria Tuesday, Mr. Powell said the Bush administration had no list or war plan for further military action after the campaign in Iraq.
Mr. Powell last visited Syria in April 2002 and met his Syrian counterpart Farouk al-Shara in New York last autumn as he pursued U.N. Security Council action against Iraq.
The process of finalizing a new Palestinian cabinet, the trigger for renewed U.S. peace efforts, has been going slower than U.S. officials hoped amid reported disputes between the incoming prime minister Mr. Abbas and Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat.
Mr. Powell said in the Associated Press interview there needs to be a "new transforming leadership" arising from the Palestinian Authority and that Mr. Arafat "was frankly, a failed leader."
The New York Times reported Thursday the Bush administration is pressing Israel to ease military restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza once Mr. Abbas is installed.
It said the request came earlier this week at a White House meeting between top administration officials including Mr. Powell and emissaries of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who conveyed 14 Israeli objections to the "roadmap."
Mr. Powell has said the "roadmap" will not be changed from the draft approved last December by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, and has suggested that Israel and the Palestinians begin taking up their concerns about the peace plan with each other.